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Attitudes toward undocumented immigrants shift

New poll results reveal important shifts in public attitudes toward illegal immigrants in California, a bellwether state for the debate over immigration policy.

The USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll is the largest statewide sample of registered voters in California this year.

In a departure from voter attitudes in the past, Californian voters are much more conflicted about whether to deny taxpayer-supported social services to illegal immigrants. More than 47 percent of registered voters oppose — 45 percent support — proposals to deny social services, such as public schooling and emergency room care, to illegal immigrants.

A majority of Democratic voters (55 percent) and “decline-to-state” voters (53 percent) would not deny illegal immigrants social services, compared to 31 percent of Republican voters. In support of denying illegal immigrants social services are 37 percent of Democrats, 40 percent of decline-to-state voters and 61 percent of Republicans polled.

However, among Republican voters, more oppose denying undocumented immigrants access to taxpayer-funded social services (31 percent) than oppose creating a path to citizenship (29 percent). Seventy-five percent of Republicans favor temporary worker programs and 65 percent of Republicans favor creating a path to legalization, according to the poll.

Of the three immigration policy options provided in the poll, all of which included stronger border enforcement, denying undocumented immigrants social services was the least popular option for Democratic voters and independent voters. About two-thirds of both Democratic voters and decline-to-state voters support temporary worker programs and creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Overall, almost 70 percent of registered voters support temporary-worker programs that do not grant legal citizenship; 67 percent support a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants that includes learning English and paying fines and back taxes; and 45 percent support prohibiting illegal immigrants from using social services.

“Throughout Californian and American history, attitudes toward illegal immigrants have hardened during difficult economic times. What’s striking about these results is that California voters are much more conflicted on the question of services for illegal immigrants than we’ve seen in the past,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “Along with the support for a guest-worker program and for creating a path toward legalization, this marks a significant shift in the mindset of Californians in this area.”

Californians were more pessimistic about the state economy than the national economy, and the smallest percentage of Californians in the history of Los Angeles Times polling were optimistic about the state’s future. Only 10 percent of registered voters agreed that the state is headed in the “right direction,” compared to 34 percent who agreed the nation is headed in the right direction.

“While voters are starting to become optimistic about the national economic picture, they’re still extremely dour about their own state’s prospects for recovery. When it comes to jobs and the economy, for Californians, the grass is definitely greener on the other side of the fence,” Schnur said.

The percentage of voters who believe the state is on the “wrong track” was 82 percent, matching the highest dissatisfaction ever measured by the Los Angeles Times, in September 1992.

The USC College/Los Angeles Times Poll also found Californians are more pessimistic than Americans overall, with only 26 percent of Californians believing that the economy is starting to improve. Thirty-one percent believe that the economy has hit bottom but is not yet getting any better, and another 36 percent believe the economy will get worse.

Optimism about the future of the nation was highest among younger voters. About 39 percent of 18- to 29-year-old registered voters believe the country is headed in the right direction, compared to 27 percent of those 65 and older.

In the USC College/Los Angeles Times Poll, which was conducted after the passage of health care reform, a majority (52 percent) of Californians believe the country will be better off overall because of the new health care law.

Opinion is sharply divided along party lines: 72 percent of Democrats believe the country will be better off and 70 percent of Republicans believe the country will be worse off because of health care reform. Overall, 36 percent of the registered voters polled believe the country will be worse off because of the health care reform bill.

As for personal benefits from the health care reform bill, 47 percent of Californians did not expect to see benefits for themselves or their families within the next few years, compared to 41 percent who expected to see benefits.

In another key finding, Same-sex marriage is supported by 52 percent of registered voters in California (40 percent oppose). These numbers are similar to findings from the last USC College/Los Angeles Times Poll, conducted in November 2009, which found 51 percent of registered voters in favor of same-sex marriage and 43 percent opposed.

Follow all election news coverage at Election 2012, a resource for journalists and others interested in politics created by USC Media Relations.

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